Different Men: Culture Club Live, By Simon Price

Simon Price heads to Heaven for the return of Culture Club and considers getting older with Boy George... who "might not have been the most saintly of guardian angels". Live photograph thanks to John Rahim/Music Pics

"Hello, we’re Culture Club", he says, with knowing redundancy. "Someone backstage just asked me my name, so there’s work to be done," he adds, before the devil on his shoulder scripts the provocateur punchline. "He was only fifteen, and he was with Philip Sallon…"

Ah, fifteen. Imagine being that age, and Culture Club – that utterly improbable, vari-sexual, multi-racial, reggae-soul pop phenomenon – being the thing that shaped your Plasticine personality and your malleable mind, their name justified by that gloriously heterodox and pluralist line-up: Boy George, second-generation Irish and gay as a window (even if he wasn’t officially out). Mikey Craig, black and straight. Jon Moss, London Jewish and sexually persuadable. Roy Hay, English as chips and straight as fries.

Many of us, naturally, don’t need to imagine. Looking around Heaven, faces ravaged by Anno Domini but eyes still eager with expectation, we were those kids. Or, in a few cases, the yet-unborn who later read Take It Like A Man, watched Worried About The Boy, and ransacked the charity shops for second-hand kicks we’d had first.

What I do attempt to imagine is how weird we might have felt, watching George, Mikey, Roy and Jon onstage in ’83, to be suddenly flashed forward, by some miracle of technology or witchcraft, to Heaven tonight and witness these scenes – us in our forties, them in their fifties – taking place, before the Ghost Of Christmas Future lost the connection and teleported us back to our 80s arena bucket-seats. Maybe not weird at all, actually, but strangely reassuring.

I’ve still got my Culture Club wall mirror from those days, market-bought and completely unofficial. When I look at myself in it, though, I’m not the same. But George? Oh, he could pass for that printed silhouette, give (a beard) or take (the dreadlocks). Sure, it’s dark in here, but whatever crazy teetotal vegan macrobiotic raw food diet the Boy’s been on, it’s worked because whenever a mischievous smile flickers across his lips, his cheeks framing that cutely pointed nose under his yellow fedora, you don’t need to squint too hard for that "Oh my god it’s actually him" moment.

To some, Culture Club will always be the moment 80s pop went wrong: the moment when the New Pop cut its umbilical cord to Punk, and we entered a phase of Byzantine decadence in which it was, to quote the title of Dave Rimmer’s book, Like Punk Never Happened. But any CC kid who read Smash Hits, the mag for whom Rimmer wrote, knew different. We knew George was the former Bowie kid with the orange hair and green jelly sandals (or was it the other way around?), and he’d fought the Punk Wars so that we didn’t have to.

Culture Club were the gentlest of educations, George’s unthreateningly asexual persona beckoning the devotee along an escape route out of the strictures of smalltown repression, his cryptic lyrics seeming to contain truths to be unlocked at a later date, always with the underlying sense that when you did unlock them, everything would be just fine.

But they were also one of the best musical schoolings you could hope for. For starters, they provided one of my earliest initiations into 60s soul: ‘Church Of The Poison Mind’, which opens this warm-up show (the first of their current comeback), was probably the first time a Motown/Faux-town beat ever reached me, Jon Moss channelling Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen.

It’s followed by ‘Move Away’, the final proper Culture Club hit before it all went tits-up first time round. And, to prove they’re a working band and not just a mercenary marriage of convenience uneasily held together my mutual financial interest, they take us straight into several selections from new album Tribes.

First up is ‘Different Man’, written about Sly Stone ("living in a car by the side of the road, like a crackpipe Jesus…") and very much in the four-to-the-floor jubilant style of ‘Dance To The Music’ or ‘Everyday People’. The wah-wah funk of ‘Like I Used To’ is in a similar vein, while ‘Human Zoo’ and ‘Let Somebody Love You’, the latter dedicated to John Holt, tap into the band’s reggae side, ‘Oil And Water’ revisits their soft soul side, and ‘Truth Is A Runaway Train’ jumps the points and goes rogue by taking us into Johnny Cash country.

Of all the new tracks, however, ‘More Than Silence’, with its juggernaut John Hughes movie production and massive radio-ready chorus, sounds the most like a hit single. If bands as old as Culture Club were allowed to have hit singles any more, that is.

Of the back catalogue, it isn’t always the most obvious mega-hits that land the biggest blow. For example, it’s somehow telling that it’s during ‘Miss Me Blind’, and not that corny old albatross ‘Karma Chameleon’, that someone faints and I have to help her to her feet.

The often-derided ‘War Song’ (which provided low-hanging fruit for Kenny Everett’s cruel parody) makes a surprise appearance, in a ‘reconstructed’ form (slow, ballad-like verses and uptempo calypso chorus, with a snatch of Frankie’s ‘Two Tribes’ thrown in).

The ones that really give me shivers are Colour By Numbers gospel-pop showpiece ‘Black Money’, on which it takes three women to do original co-vocalist Helen Terry’s still-astonishing job, and the untouchable ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me’, on which George’s voice, huskier now and inclined to dodge the higher notes, but still impossibly gorgeous, breaks our hearts all over again.

But I could write a whole alternate setlist of unplayed songs that would slay me in just the same way: ‘That’s The Way (I’m Only Trying To Help You)’, ‘Mistake No.3’, ‘Victims’, ‘White Boy’, ‘The Medal Song’, ‘Time (Clock Of The Heart)’… proof of a richer back catalogue than they are normally credited with having. Culture Club always ran deeper than surface froth.

As they encore with ‘It’s A Miracle’, I glance around again, and my inner fifteen-year-old from Thatcher’s second term takes another zoom-forward look through that time telescope to the present. I wonder what I’d have made of it all. George may not have been the most saintly of guardian angels – half the time, he didn’t do the greatest job of looking after himself, never mind anyone else – but we all turned out OK. Didn’t we?

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